This is a basic overview of the parsha story in a format that can be adapted for a wide range of ages. Sources include parsha text, commentaries and midrash. When introducing midrash or other non-pshat elements, I use the words “some people think” or something similar (find out why). If you find these overviews helpful, or if there’s a typo, or something is confusing you or your kids, I’d love to hear from you. Pretty please, with sugar on top?
You were probably annoyed. If it was a parent, or another adult, I hope you’d come anyway, but for a friend, or your little brother, you might say no. This week’s parsha starts with Hashem calling to Avram – the great, great, great (plus a few more) grandson of Noach. Avram was living where he liked, with family all around him, but Hashem said to go – and Avram went. It was the first of ten times Hashem tested Avram. Do you think Avram passed all the tests? (yes, he did!)
If someone tells you to go, what’s the first thing you’d ask?
You’d probably ask where! But Avram didn’t do that. Hashem said he’d show the way, and Avram trusted him. Hashem made two great promises, with two Hebrew words: אֶרֶץ (eretz – that means land) and זֶרַע (zera – that means seed). When Hashem says “land” and “seed,” he’s not starting a garden! It’s one special land – eretz Yisrael – and one special seed – children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, who would become the Jewish people. Do you want to see and touch the seed Hashem promised Avram? Pat yourself on the head; give yourself a hug. YOU are the seed!
A seed isn’t much more than a speck; worthless. And you toss it in the dirt; worthless. It sits in the dirt for a long time: days, weeks, even years. Nothing happens, or maybe the seed rots a bit. But then, that seed begins to grow. It may grow into something small, like a blade of grass or a dandelion, or it may grow into something HUGE, like an oak tree.
Some people feel worthless if they have no children; some people feel worthless if they are old.
When Hashem called to him, Avram was just one old man, married to an old woman, Sarai. They had no children. Avram and Sarai weren’t living anywhere special or doing much differently from the people around them. Except the people around them were doing avodah zarah – davening to the rocks and trees and sun and stars, without looking for the important Reason behind all those amazing things. Hashem saw that Avram and Sarai could be really different; they could start something special. So he “planted” them in eretz Yisrael, and they grew, and grew and grew.
Hashem promised so many descendants that – like stars – they’d be impossible to count, and that’s what happened!
But all that came many years later. Right now, in our story, Avram and Sarai are still in eretz Yisrael, and something terrible happens almost right away – a famine! They must travel to Mitzrayim (that’s Egypt in Hebrew) for food. Do you remember someone else in the Torah who had to do that? If this is your first time reading the parsha, you won’t remember, but you’ll read later on about Avram’s grandson Yaakov who would also go down to Mitzrayim during a famine, after his sons bought grain from the ruler, Yoseif.
Those were all Avram’s grandchildren and great-grandchildren… just like you!
But wait a minute! How could Avram have so many grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren if he didn’t have children at all? Avram was sad, and puzzled. He knew Sarai couldn’t have children, but in those days, men were allowed to have more than one wife, and that’s what Avram thought Hashem meant. So he married a Mitzri princess. Doesn’t that sound a bit like a fairy tale? But why did the princess choose to marry Avram?
Something special happened when Avram and Sarai went to Mitzrayim.
The Torah doesn’t usually say how a person looks, but in this parsha, we learn that Sarai is very beautiful. She was so beautiful that every man wanted to marry her. Avram knew that Paroh, the Mitzri king, would never marry a woman who was already married – he would kill her husband first and then marry her. That would be very bad. So Avram told Sarai his plan: “Tell Paroh you’re my sister and then he’ll give me gifts, while you pretend to marry him.” This strange plan worked. Paroh gave Avram many gifts – animals and servants – and took Sarai. But Hashem sent a plague to punish Paroh’s household. Paroh learned it was because of Sarai, but he was so amazed at Hashem’s power that he didn’t kill Avram – he sent them, with food and gifts, as far from his palace as he could.
So what about the princess?
Her name was Hagar, and the Torah says she was a handmaid – a שִׁפְחָה / shifcha. But great rabbis like Rashi, whose writing helps us understand hard parts of Torah, tell us that she was really a princess – Paroh’s daughter. Rashi says that when Paroh saw the amazing things Hashem did for Avram and Sarai, he knew it was better for his daughter to be a servant of a great person like Avram than even a royal princess. Hagar went willingly, and later had a baby with Avram named Ishmael, but – unlike in a fairy tale – Sarai and Hagar didn’t always get along well.
First, He asked Avram to cut korbanos in half and lie the parts on the ground across from each other. This was called the “bris bein ha-besarim” – covenant (promise) between the (animal) parts. Hashem said Ishmael wasn’t the promised “seed,” though he’d be the father of the great Arab nations. Hashem said Avram and Sarai needed new names – Avraham and Sarah. The best news of all: Sarah will have a baby! We’ll meet him in next week’s parsha… Vayeira!